Saudi artist Mohannad Shono’s Argentina show explores meaning and storytelling
DUBAI: A large, circular planet-like shape spotted with what appear to be craters and a few black dots constantly changing in front of the viewer’s eyes.
It is “The Fifth Sun”, a textile wall projection with sound created in 2017 by Saudi artist Mohannad Shono. According to the artist, he explores self-fulfilling prophecies – and “self-inflicted wounds” – regarding destruction and rebirth. It is one of the works that Shono – one of Saudi Arabia’s most promising contemporary artists – presents at BIENALSUR (International Biennial of Contemporary Art of the South) in Buenos Aires, through the Saudi ministry. of the culture.
The career of the Riyadh-born artist is as inspiring as it is unconventional. He started creating his own comics as a child – a side activity he retained even while studying architecture in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Eventually he decided to devote himself to his art full time and started publishing one of Saudi Arabia’s first comics through a small independent publishing house.
He left the Kingdom in 2004 to pursue a career in advertising in Dubai and Sydney, but continued to work on his art in parallel. Upon returning to Riyadh in 2015, he discovered that the country had changed a lot and began participating in underground art exhibitions, establishing himself as a rising name in the local Saudi art movement.
His work has since been exhibited in his country and abroad (notably in South Korea and Germany) and he has participated in artist residencies in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.
At the heart of Shono’s conceptual art that he creates from a variety of mediums, including works on paper, films and installations, is an investigation of human understanding. His works, although they are not representative of the human form or the outside world, are loaded with suggestions and emotions. They are created, says Shono, from “an imaginary state of being, devoid of a particular time and place,” which, he says, ultimately frees him from his own sense of displacement, stemming from his education as a Syrian in Saudi Arabia. .
Shono exhibits five other works at BIENALSUR: “The Silent Press” (2019), “The Name of All Things” (2019), “The Reading Ring” (2019), “Our Inheritance of Meaning” (2019) and a new work in ink on paper entitled “Stolen Words”.
The majority of them were also featured in the artist’s solo exhibition “Silence is Still Talking” at the Athr Gallery in Jeddah.
“These works explored our relationship with the nature of words and their meaning,” explains Shono. “They take us through a journey of the hard work required to reform the Word. We start by grinding up the “hardened word”, by which I mean those things that we try to separate and re-understand – or to separate until they lose their meaning – to (create) new words with new meanings and perhaps open up solutions that are desperately needed.
“The Names of All Things” is a good example of what Shono is trying to achieve. It is an installation made from the dust of words written in crushed charcoal. The dust rests on a vibrating table so that it is shaken across the canvas, the shapes it makes constantly reform into “unlimited arrangements”.
“From the marks left by this process, new meanings to those old words can emerge,” Shono explained. “These are symbols that can potentially contain and embody new words and meanings. Although they are still illegible, they are being read.
Much of Shono’s work explores how storytelling influences contemporary society. “Human beings are wired to gravitate towards constructed narratives,” he says. “We like to consume the story in all its different media – books, shows, movies, etc. This belief in storytelling also helps us come together as tribes: we can come together around a story and it helps us organize according to certain rules (set out in) a story. It gives us the power to organize ourselves into larger groups, united around a set of stories and beliefs. Millions and millions of people can thus coordinate and be on the same page because of this commonly shared belief in a particular story – one that everyone in this group has accepted as truth.
The centerpiece of “The Silence is Still Talking” was “The Silent Press” – a full-scale installation consisting of three attached rolls of pigment on paper that look like an old printing press. The work is indicative of Shono’s explorations in the meaning behind the written word. “It is a printing press which is in a state of inactivity; it is therefore silent and not in motion, ”he says. “The pigments are stirred by sound so that we can see their resulting movements on the paper, but not hear the sound that made them appear that way. I removed intentionality from my hands in an effort to discover new language and meaning. ”
So instead of recognizable words, the scrolls are covered in undefined black shapes, revealing a language of its own.
“I am interested in the power of interpretations and fluid readings,” Shono told Arab News. “The meanings inflexible in relation to words which have an open and more fluid interpretation.”
Shono’s personal relationship with the written word is complicated. The artist is dyslexic and does not feel comfortable writing in English or Arabic in public, but these works allow him to “form my own language”. The ever-changing arrangements of this language naturally create ever-changing meanings for its “words”.
Shono reworked some of his pieces for BIENALSUR in light of his own experience and that of others during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It often takes a few manifestations of a work to see the connection between things. They all talk about our relationship, personally and collectively, with change, ”he says. “I feel like everything connects and resonates at the same time. It’s all part of this continuing understanding of myself and my job and why I do what I do.
“And the change keeps coming,” he continues. “My work is about how we can accept and appreciate change and accept a more fluid way of reading things – rather than a rigid interpretation of the text.”